The Plantagenet Saga: Book 8
Last summer I had a bit of a run on Jean Plaidy in second-hand bookshops. She seemed to be the great historical novelist whom I hadn’t yet read (with the exception of Madonna of the Seven Hills, which I read in November 2017). Having furnished myself with the vast majority of her works, I settled down a couple of days ago with The Follies of the King, the lamentable tale of Edward II. It’s the eighth book in her Plantagenet Saga but each seems to be pretty much self-contained and this just happened to be the first my hand landed on. Now I’m worried that maybe I’ve made a mistake; or perhaps this and Madonna of the Seven Hills were just duff choices. Published in 1980, this feels as if it dates from the 1950s instead, full of stilted melodrama, needless repetition and one-dimensional characters. While it jogged memories from my history degree, I can’t say that I really enjoyed it, but I fought the good fight and struggled through to the end.
When Edward I dies in 1307, he leaves his work half-done. The Scots, to whom he has been a fearful enemy, have come together under the charismatic leadership of Robert the Bruce and promise to undo Edward’s many recent gains. His barons are powerful men, mindful of the power granted to their class during the reign of Edward’s despotic grandfather John, and unwilling to risk losing it again. Governed by character, they have led where Edward leads because he is a powerful, honourable, impressive and dynamic king. But his death leaves England with a king of a very different type: his son, also called Edward. Edward II is 23 at the time of his father’s death and yet has failed to acquire any of the trappings of adulthood. Flighty, immature and easily swayed, he has since boyhood been in thrall to the dazzling Piers Gaveston, son of a Gascon knight. And, of all the things Edward I’s death might mean to Edward II, the foremost is that the exiled Gaveston can finally come home. With this recall, young Edward sets in motion a series of tragic consequences that will lead to unrest, treason, murder and civil war.
Everyone knows about Edward’s unnatural friendship with Gaveston – and Plaidy, to do her credit, makes it clear that they’re lovers and not just very-good-friends. The barons, among them the powerful Lancaster, hope that the king’s obsession with this parasite will fade when he marries; for marry he must, in order to propagate the family line. And the choice falls on Isabella, daughter of Philip the Fair of France, the most beautiful princess in Europe and also a woman of extraordinary strength and determination. At first she glories in the match: a husband of such physical beauty, and such power, who seems so fond of her! But then she arrives in England and discovers, to her horror, that Edward’s heart lies in the keeping of fickle Gaveston, who cares for little but feathering his own nest and exploiting the enraptured king for all he can. Humiliated and ashamed, Isabella bides her time. Her beauty gains her some popularity with the English people, but she knows that she needs to do more to strengthen her hand. She needs sons. And so begins her careful campaign to coax the king into doing his marital duty, while quietly planning how she might one day revenge herself for his indifference.
This is certainly one of the most colourful episodes of British regal history: the king who is weakened by his fawning dependence on handsome, greedy favourites – first Gaveston, of course, and afterwards Hugh le Despenser. I wish I could remember Marlowe’s play, which I saw in the form of Derek Jarman’s film at university, but which has completely escaped my mind; I’m sure, though, that he told the story with much more grace and poetry. My issues with Plaidy’s novel are primarily with the characterisation. We aren’t allowed to deduce anything about the characters. Everyone has a personality that can be summed up in one word (Edward = weak; Gaveston = indulgent; Isabella = vengeful), and as if this shallow characterisation wasn’t enough, Plaidy hammers home the same points again and again. By the end I felt like squeaking with frustration every time Edward thought sorrowfully of how merry and exciting life had been when dear ‘Perrot’ was alive. I lost track of the times that Isabella was described as ‘more beautiful than ever’, and how she broodingly bided her time until she could make the king pay for humiliating her. It just all became rather tedious. Everything is told; little is shown. And it may be historically accurate – who knows? – but Edward is such a limp, cavilling, pathetic little creature that I couldn’t feel any sympathy for him at all.
For a story which should be full of passion, whether that’s Edward’s for Gaveston or Isabella’s for Mortimer, it feels oddly flat and lifeless. None of the love affairs convince: Isabella and Mortimer, especially, sound like actors awkwardly mouthing lines rather than participants in a bolt-to-the-heart amour. It feels, in fact, like a history book written by a narratively-inclined Victorian maiden aunt (with a naughty streak), rather than a proper historical epic of blood, lust and the death of kings. Plaidy also seems to be fighting a desire to get sidetracked with the tale of the Templars’ Curse on the French Capetians, who feature frequently thanks to their relationship to Isabella. I just found it all rather dull, I’m afraid, and I can’t help wondering whether Plaidy had simply gone off the boil a bit by this stage. If that’s the case, then I’m in trouble, because she continued publishing novels at a fearsome rate right up until her death in 1993.
Please, fellow historical fiction readers, reassure me that others are better? Or am I just missing something? The Follies of the King has rapturous five-star reviews on Amazon so have I simply failed to grasp its genius? Madonna of the Seven Hills didn’t convince me either, but of course that might be because I get especially quarrelsome with novels about the Borgias. But my relationship with Plaidy hasn’t been all disappointment: I’ve also dipped into The Queen’s Favourites (just after seeing the film The Favourite) and Madame Serpent from the Catherine de’ Medici trilogy, both of which I enjoyed much more than this, so hopefully I’ve just chosen a bit of a dud here.